four things I’ve learnt about sweet peas

Sweet pea season is in full swing here. Every room in the house has a fistful stuffed into any vase, jar or bottle we can find.

sweet peas, cottage garden blogHere are a few things I’ve accidentally learnt about the scented scramblers this year.

1. soak the seeds, then forget about them for a few days

We’re overrun with lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton and pale pink Nelly Viner. I only sowed one pack of each but they had the best germination rate of all the varieties we’ve grown.

Lady Grisel Hamilton sweet pea, cottage garden blog

we’re picking armfuls of pale lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton

The secret? I popped the seeds into water one Friday night, intending to sow them the next afternoon. But my daughter had swimming, then we met up with one of her buddies… I finally remembered them on the Monday morning, and found them looking fat and bloated. They were swiftly transferred to damp kitchen towel and when I got round to planting them the following weekend most of them were sprouting.

We had a 100% success rate with these – they all grew into strong, healthy plants. Usually I’m lucky if 50% germinate and survive long enough to be planted out.

2. winter-sown sweet peas are tough as old boots

Semi-disaster struck in April when a passing wild rabbit feasted on the seedlings from our first sowing last November. They looked like they might be goners but I planted them out anyway and they’ve recovered well enough. Their roots were far more established than the ones we sowed later, so I think they could have survived almost anything.

3. pinch the tips out for a bushy plant, let them be for longer-stemmed flowers

My neglect of Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton continued once they were growing. Instead of pinching out their tips – as I thought you were supposed to – I let them grow long and leggy. They tangled so much that I had to spend ten minutes teasing them apart before planting them out. But they’ve gone on to produce  long, strong-stemmed flowers that are perfect for picking.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

long, straight stems

According to Gardeners World this is the best way to grow sweet peas for the vase – and if you can be bothered to pinch out their side shoots they’ll be even better.

4. don’t plant them in a wigwam

Our daughter’s sweet pea castle was only meant to be a bit of fun. But it’s become one of the loveliest features of the garden this summer.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the sweet pea castle

However, the ones we planted in smaller wigwams are top-heavy and so congested that the flower stems grow twisted and misshapen as they try to find their way towards the light.

It turns out some sweet pea experts don’t favour the traditional wigwam method either – I found this advice from Bunny Guinness in The Telegraph’s online gardening pages:

…the wigwam shapes generally advocated are not ideal. All the growth generated from the bottom ends up concentrated at a thin area at the top. Stakes with a coarse netting (such as pig), set into the ground in a circle (perhaps 500mm/20in wide and 1.2m/4ft high) are better; or use bushy twigs of hazel or birch as pea sticks – anything with long stubble to cling on to.

So it seems that most of the so-called rules of sweet pea growing are there to be broken. I’m beginning to wonder if most gardeners make it up as they go along, just like we do.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the castle in action



making a sweet pea castle

hazel poles for sweet peas, cottage garden, gardening blog

hard at work coppicing hazels

We’ve finally dug up the remains of the massive pampas grass that dominated the centre of the garden when we moved here. Well, Steve has anyway. And it looked back-breaking from where I was standing.

This is the only section of garden that gets sun all day. So now the pampas has gone our plan is to create an island border and fill it with the sun-loving perennials that we struggle to find space for elsewhere.


It’s going to take a bit of work though. Especially since the list of plants we want to include gets longer by the day. For the time being, we’ve turned the pampas patch into a sweet pea castle for our three-year-old.

sweet pea castle, cottage garden, gardening blog

trying the castle for size

Our hedge is full of hazels that grow like mad and provide us with an endless supply of plant supports. Last weekend Steve coppiced a few and I strung them into a frame for the sweet peas to scramble up. It’s like a traditional sweet pea wigwam, except we left a hole at the front for a door and didn’t gather the poles at the top.

It’s fairly robust, but if I did it again I would think a bit more carefully about my stringing technique. I should have alternated, doing a row at the bottom then one at the top, instead of just working my way up. By the time I got to the top, I decided the poles should taper in a bit, but as I tightened the string some of the lower layers slackened off. That’s the problem with making it up as you go along.

Steve did praise the fact that I worked clockwise then anticlockwise. Apparently this makes it stronger. I just nodded knowingly when he told me, and didn’t say I’d only done it that way because I was too lazy to cut the string after each level.

sweet peas

nibbled by a rabbit…

I’d been planning to use the Easton Walled Garden heirloom sweet peas that we sowed in November to grow up the castle. I thought the blue, pink and white of the Lord Nelson, Miss Willmott and Dorothy Eckford varieties would work well as a centrepiece for the garden through the summer. As well as providing a pretty, scented den for our girl and her playmates of course.

However, semi disaster struck a couple of weeks ago when a passing wild rabbit decided he was rather partial to sweet pea shoots. The plants seem to be recovering, so I’ve still used them. But I interspersed them with a couple more old-fashioned varieties that we sowed later (Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton).

Last year our sweet peas grew up and over their poles. I don’t know if the rabbit-nibbled ones will grow anywhere near as tall. I suppose we can always fill any gaps with a few runner beans.

green shoots

In the end, I decided to put our sweet peas in the porch to germinate. Mainly to avoid them being eaten by mice. They are doing OK.

gardening blog sweet pea seedlings

Lord Nelson, one month after sowing

Lord Nelson was the first to sprout and is already a bit leggy – I pinched out the tops on Christmas Eve in an attempt to slow him down a bit.

Dorothy Eckford and Miss Wilmott were a bit slower to get going, and fewer of them have germinated so far.

gardening blog sweet pea seedlings

Dorothy Eckford (left) is a couple of weeks behind Lord Nelson, despite growing in exactly the same conditions

I have another packet of each of these varieties that I was planning to plant in the spring. But I suspect I will end up sowing them all with M on new year’s day, and I may have to order some more as well.

I’ve no idea where I’ll put them though, the greenhouse is bursting at the seams already. We are overwintering a few young and tender plants in there. Plus I got a bit carried away trying winter sowings of some hardy and half-hardy annuals I’m growing for the first time, like cleome, ammi majus and didiscus blue lace.

gardening blog didiscus  seedling

didiscus seedling – I got a bit carried away with winter sowings

Maybe I should add one of these to my Christmas list next year… if only.

In my dreams... from the Victorian Greenhouse Co

In my dreams… from the Victorian Greenhouse Co

sweet peas – a winter sowing

sweet pea tubes gardening blogI wasn’t going to bother with a winter sowing of sweet peas. Last year most of my first batch were gobbled by mice and I’m not convinced the ones that made it did better than those sowed in the spring.

But as the days get colder and darker, it lifts the spirits to plan for next summer. On Sunday, M and I tore open three of the six packets of seed I ordered from Easton Walled Gardens and made a start.

Sweet peas love to grow nice long roots, so we’ve been saving loo rolls and kitchen rolls for them. The added bonus is that the cardboard should just disintegrate when we plant them out, meaning we won’t need to disturb them too much.

When it came to filling the tubes with compost, M struggled with their open-ends. So I took the frugal option for my seeds and let her have some biodegradable fibre pots.sweet peas gardening blog

Each packet had at least one seed more than the 15 we were expecting, perhaps they add extra for the inevitable rodent robbers. It was just as well since M dropped hers and a few rolled under the shed floor. I suspect there is a mouse or three living down there, so I hope it won’t trigger them to go sweet pea hunting.

sweet pea tray gardening blog

M is having a pink phase, so she claimed Miss Wilmott for the biodegradable pots. I sowed Dorothy Eckford and Lord Nelson in loo rolls, which in hindsight seems a little disrespectful.

When we were done, we gave them a drink and left them in the cold greenhouse to germinate. I suppose I could have set a mouse trap next to them, but I didn’t have the heart to. We can always grow more in the spring.

This Q&A from Easton Walled Gardens has some good sweet pea growing advice. I didn’t come across it until after we sowed ours, but if they haven’t been devoured by mice yet, I’ll move them to the porch which is just as cold but hopefully a little more mouse-proof than the greenhouse.

outside-in: July (2/12)

Outside-in charts my attempts to bring the garden into the house with haphazard English Freestyle flower arranging.

It has been all about the sweet peas this month. If they were’t so lovely, I’d almost say picking them has become a bit of a chore. Our pastel-pink-and-white painted ladies are the most prolific. I adore the more vibrant purples and reds as well as the pure whites, but we have far fewer of them.

gardening blog white sweet peas

white sweet peas, bury-your-face-in gorgeous, but we don’t have many

Over the past couple of weeks many of the sweet peas have had very short stems – just a couple of inches. I wonder if the hot weather is bringing them on too quickly. But what they lack in length they make up for in abundance. Anyone who comes to visit walks away with a fistful.

gardening blog sweet peas in a cup

granny’s old teacups come in handy for short-stemmed flowers

And since most of them are too short for vases, I have scoured the cupboards for squat cups and glasses to put them in.

Here are some of the other flowers we’ve had in the house this month…

gardening blog hosta and grass

Steve grew some ornamental grass that teamed up well with these hosta flowers (should have dusted the window ledge..)


gardening blog sweet peas and garlic

we lifted our early purple garlic this month; love the way its earthy colours echo the fresher look of the sweet peas

gardening blog nigella

these nigella were very low-maintenance, we literally scattered the seed on the ground and watched them grow

gardening blog sweet peas and larkspur

the larkspur look so good in the garden I don’t like to pick them – but I managed to sacrifice a few stems


Most of these flowers – and the garlic – were from Sarah Raven and Pennard Plants seeds and sets.

the original sweet pea

sweet pea cupani

Cupani – the mother of sweet peas

Last spring I sowed sweet peas direct into the ground, and got a big fat nothing.

Then I read an article by Monty Don saying he doesn’t have much success that way either. So I decided to try again, sowing them in pots to plant out later.

At the Malvern Autumn Show I came across Pennard Plants – a fab company specialising in heirloom seeds. After rifling through their collection I finally settled on a couple of old-fashioned varieties. One of which was Cupani.

This is officially ‘the mother of all sweet peas’. It can be traced back to 1699 when it was cultivated by an English schoolmaster from seeds sent to him by Father Cupani, a Sicilian Monk.

I had 15 Cupani seeds and sowed them in three batches: autumn, winter and early spring. Then I left them to germinate in the well ventilated (i.e. several panes of glass missing) greenhouse we inherited with the cottage.

sweet pea cupani

the tendrils cling to anything, and I think they’re almost as lovely as the flowers

Predictably, the first batch were devoured by mice as soon as they germinated. The second batch grew and made it through the winter, but looked pretty shabby by February. The ones I sowed in the spring caught up quickly as the weather warmed. I won’t bother with a winter sowing again.

We planted them out in large containers and they are rampant – you can’t tell which were the spring / winter sowings now. I mixed Cupani with another heritage variety, Painted Lady. Apparently she is the daughter of Cupani – but that was a happy accident, I didn’t know it at the time!

They have started flowering in earnest this week. And the more you pick, the more they flower. Hopefully we’ll have that inimitable sweet pea fragrance in the house all summer long.

sweet pea cupani rampant

they are rampant – and I think we have over-planted. Our neighbour has grown them for years and says ‘more than one plant per stick is greedy’!


M with Cupani and Painted Lady - looking for mischief...

M with Cupani and Painted Lady – looking for mischief…